Fresh start for freedom

Viktor Yushchenko, taking the oath as president, pledges that Ukraine "will become an honest nation."

By Ian Traynor

Published January 24, 2005 1:35PM (EST)

Two months of "people's power" on the streets and in the squares of Ukraine reached a celebratory climax Sunday when Viktor Yushchenko finally took the oath as president, promising the massed ranks of the Orange Revolution a fresh start after freedom's triumph over tyranny.

The 50-year-old former prime minister and national bank chief was sworn in as Ukraine's third president since the collapse of the Soviet Union 13 years ago, capping a bitter but joyous campaign for office and for democracy that erupted in November when the outgoing regime of Leonid Kuchma tried to steal the presidential election. In scenes reminiscent of the popular ferment of 1989 that ended the Kremlin's rule over half of Europe, Yushchenko Sunday addressed more than 100,000 supporters who braved subzero temperatures in Kiev's central square to mark the birth of a new era. "This is a victory of freedom over tyranny, of law over lawlessness," Yushchenko declared.

Former dissident heroes from the east European revolutions of 1989 were on hand with senior officials from the E.U., NATO and the United States, including Colin Powell, the outgoing U.S. secretary of state, to witness what Yushchenko and many others believe is the delayed onset of genuine Ukrainian independence.

Moscow sent a relatively lowly official. President Vladimir Putin miscalculated disastrously by opposing Yushchenko and congratulated him grudgingly on his Boxing Day poll triumph only a few days ago. Putin, like much of the Russian elite, is worried at the takeover by the staunchly independent Yushchenko. By contrast, President Bush phoned Yushchenko on the weekend to extol "democracy's victory" in Ukraine, while Powell Sunday vowed that Washington would do its utmost to help Yushchenko satisfy the vast popular expectation vested in him.

The new president, who will struggle to satisfy the popular hopes for his presidency given the wretched condition of the country, sent a conciliatory gesture to the Kremlin, telling the crowd that "everyone can teach their children the language of their forefathers" -- a reference to the Russian language, which still holds sway in much of the country.

He will build on that gesture Monday by making Moscow his first stop as president, but will then travel to Strasbourg, France, to address the European Parliament, and then join world leaders in Poland for this week's events marking 60 years since the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz was liberated.

Yushchenko signaled strongly that he would be clamoring at the doors of Brussels -- a move certain to raise hackles at E.U. headquarters. "Our place is in the European Union. My goal is Ukraine in a united Europe. Our road into the future is the road on which a united Europe is headed."

E.U. policy toward Ukraine over the past decade has been much criticized for negligence. While the radical change in Kiev means that the E.U. is having to make up for lost time, its in boxes are overflowing. Brussels is grappling with absorbing the 10 mainly east European countries that joined last year, is preoccupied with Turkey's bid to join and has shown little capacity or will to react quickly and effectively to major convulsions around its borders.

Alexander Kwasniewski, the president of neighboring Poland, less than a year in the E.U. but already Ukraine's strongest E.U. advocate, said he would work to boost Ukraine's Western integration prospects. "Many reforms and much work are needed by E.U. members, and the European institutions must now extend their support and solidarity to the new pro-European Ukraine," said Denis MacShane, Britain's minister for Europe, who attended Sunday's inauguration.

Yushchenko has his work cut out to turn around a country that was legendarily corrupt and brutish under the decade-long Kuchma administration. He promised jobs, a crackdown on graft and a fair tax system, as well as more rigorous tax enforcement and transparency in a business sector notorious for the power wielded by rapacious billionaire oligarchs. "We will become an honest nation," Yushchenko pledged.

Widely regarded as a decent, mild-mannered technocrat, Yushchenko has not yet formed an administration or appointed a prime minister. The prospects for good governance will hinge on his appointments, not least since there are question marks about the probity of some of the politicians and businessmen who helped orchestrate his campaign and now expect a payback.

Ian Traynor

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